SJE Conference 2020

Concurrent Session I: THURSDAY 7:00-8:30 PM
Testimony, Text, and Social Knowledge: The Measles Vaccination Crisis and the Haredi Community
Laurie Zoloth (University of Chicago)
Lila Kadegan (Walnut Street Synagogue)

Vaccination against deadly childhood disease is one of the most widely celebrated successful medical innovation of the 20th century, saving 6, 0000 children a year just from measles deaths. Childhood vaccination was routine until a faked study raised doubts about side effects.  For the first time, parental anxieties about technology coalesced into a popular movement to refuse vaccination.  

It is the argument of this panel that despite the high barriers erected to keep communities apart, and despite traditional religious authorities which have long supported vaccination as a normative medical procedure, ideas of “naturalness” and a falsely remembered “traditional way”—both of which ideas are hallmarks of classic paganism—have become a part of Orthodox community structures via a women’s discursive network opposing vaccination.  

Convener: Alyssa Henning (Independent Scholar)
Respondent: Zackary Berger (Johns Hopkins University)

Journal of Jewish Ethics Editorial Board Meeting: FRIDAY, 7:45-8:45 AM

Concurrent Session II: FRIDAY, 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Panel 2: Beyond Human 
Daniel Nevins (Jewish Theological Seminary): Robotic Bar Mitzvah: The Implications of AI and Autonomous Machines for Jewish Law and Ethics.
In this session we will apply four halakhic discourses to the ethical challenges presented by AI and autonomous machines: the rules of agency and the role of non-human agents; the rules of damage caused by animals and property under indirect control of a person; the prioritization of lives when loss is inevitable; and the (im)possibility of including a human-made android or golem in the minyan. Then we will turn to practical questions, realizing that this technology is new and that we can hardly anticipate all the capabilities that will be developed and the religious dilemmas that they will engender.

Beth Berkowitz (Barnard College): A Species-Inclusive Genealogy of the Jewish Family
Four “animal family” laws are scattered throughout the Torah but have been recognized as thematically related since antiquity: 1) Do not cook a kid in his mother’s milk; 2) Leave an animal with their mother for the first week of life; 3) Do not slaughter an animal and their child on the same day; 4) Shoo away the mother bird before taking her chicks from the nest. This paper looks at the rhetoric of family in the Mishnah’s treatment of these laws as it aims to expand the genealogy of the Jewish family to include other species within it. 

Convener: Yonatan Brafman (The Jewish Theological Seminary)
Respondent: Adrienne Krone (Allegheny College)

SJE Board Meeting: FRIDAY, 12:45-1:45 PM 

SJE Plenary: FRIDAY, 2:00-3:30 PM

Pedagogy and Christian Students: Anti-Judaism, Christian Privilege, Christian Fragility, and Theological Awareness

Plenary Speaker: Amy-Jill Levine (Vanderbilt University)

Respondent: Amanda Mbuvi (High Point University)

Convener: Emily Filler (Earlham College)

Concurrent Session III: FRIDAY, 4:00-5:30 PM

Text and Pedagogy
John Berkman (Regis College, University of Toronto): What Kant Should be Taught? Rethinking the Kantian Canon in Ethics in Light of Kant’s Cosmopolitan Supersessionism and Racism
In the last decades of his life, Kant emphasized that ethics was his primary concern.  From 1785 to 1795, Kant continuously developed and defended his racial theories.  Jay Carter argues that Kant’s racism arises from his supersessionism.  Kant seeks to translate Christian theology into a moral religion. Kant’s Jesus must overcome his Jewishness to become the rational, self-legislating Christ.  This paper argues that, contrary to popular belief, Kant’s (racist and supersessionist) anthropology informs his ethics.  In light of this, I present some Kantian texts integral to a better understanding of his moral theory and its implications. 

Ethan Schwartz (Harvard University) : Plato’s Euthyphro and the Challenge of Teaching Biblical Ethics
Plato’s Euthyphro is widely used as a foundational text for teaching ethics in general and theological ethics in particular. This paper explores how this customary pedagogical use has the side effect of reifying cultural assumptions about philosophical monotheism that make it challenging to teach the ethical thought of the Hebrew Bible in the contemporary American academy. I suggest that if the questions raised by Western reception of the Euthyphro are properly contextualized, it is possible to create a pedagogical space for taking biblical ethical thought seriously on its own terms.

Sarah Zager (Yale University): Like a Dead Weight on the Intellect’s Wings: Can We Read Moses Mendelssohn’s Pedagogy as Non-Ideal Theory?
This paper will explore the possibility—and potential limits—of using Moses Mendelssohn’s thought as a resource for “non-ideal theory” about ethics and politics. As a case study, I will offer a close reading of Mendelssohn’s first Hebrew writing, the ethical periodical Qohelet Musar. There, Mendelssohn offers a description of a form of pedagogy that can be used to both talk about our ethical aspirations, without ignoring our “civic condition.” The paper will conclude by exploring which, if any, of Mendelssohn’s pedagogical techniques can be applied in contemporary classroom contexts where ideal theory and non-ideal political realities intersect.    

Convener: Heather Gert (University of North Carolina, Greensboro)


SCE Presidential Address: FRIDAY, 6:00-7:00 PM

Kabbalat Shabbat: 7:00-7:45 PM

Shabbat Dinner: 7:45-9:15 PM

Shabbat Morning Services: 9:00-10:30 AM

Shabbat Lunch and Text Study (David Seidenberg,): 12:30-2:15 PM

Tikkun Ha-olam: A Revised History of the Evolution of the Concept of "Repairing the World" and its Coherence, from Antiquity to Social Justice and Kabbalah

The commonplace understanding among scholars is that the concept of tikkun ha-olam, "repairing the world" has meanings that differ radically between periods, genre, and milieu that it is not possible to infer coherence or continuity between them from one milieu to the next, and that the meaning of social justice is a relatively late interpretation developed by liberal Jews in America. However, a thorough analysis of the evolution of the term shows that the meaning of social justice goes back at least to Sefer Habrit, Pinchas Hurwitz’s highly influential book published in 1797, and the connection between tikkun ha-olam and loving one's neighbor goes back to Bahya ibn Pakuda or even further.

 Our text study will go both backwards and forwards from these inflection points, and will include Bereishit Rabbah, Tanchuma, and Tanna Devei Eliyahu befor Bahya, Maimonides, Menachem HaBavli, Shlomo Marini (author of the 17th cent. work Sefer Tikkun Olam) between Bahya and Hurwitz, and Moshe Chaim Luzzati, Natan Friedland (a founder of Chibat Zion), Avraham Yizhak Kook and Yehudah Ashlag after Hurwitz. We will also touch on the problem of Aleinu, and on the significance of the American-based teachers that people often identify as the originators of social justice tikkun ha-olam, Alexander Dushkin and Shlomo Bardin. Among other things, the sources will demonstrate unequivocally that the social justice interpretation of tikkun ha-olam predates what is touted as the Kabbalistic interpretation, and that the polemic that social justice Judaism is somehow less authentic or less historically grounded is completely unsupportable.

Concurrent Session IV: SATURDAY, 2:30-4 PM

Text, Ethics, and Practice

Mira Beth Wasserman (Center for Jewish Ethics, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College): What's the Opposite of Aggada? (It's Not Halakha)
The conventional understanding of Halakha and Aggada as oppositional categories constrains and confounds contemporary efforts to use rabbinic literature as a source for Jewish ethics. This paper seeks to break free of the persistent hold of the Halakha/Aggada binary. It zeroes in on a talmudic parable of two rival wives (B. Baba Kama 60b) that is often invoked in defining Halakha and Aggada as opposites and demonstrates how a misreading of the parable epitomizes a larger problem in the field. 

Vincent Calabrese (University of Toronto): Heschel’s Theory of Halakhah
Although he did not serve as a halakhic decisor, Abraham Joshua Heschel did, throughout his career, make theoretical claims about how Jewish law ought to be understood, as well as practical advice for his colleagues serving in judicial roles. This paper attempts to survey Heschel's writings on halakhah as a whole, in order both to determine his interlocutors and sources of influence, and to evaluate whether they add up to a consistent 'theory of halakhah.' Finally, I will suggest that Heschel's preoccupation with the categories of 'leniency' and 'stringency' can lead to a halakhic decision-making process which relies on ethical content which is both problematic and unexamined.

Convener: Julia Watts Belser (Georgetown University)
Respondent: Deborah Barer (Towson University)

SATURDAY, 4:30-5:30 PM
Panel 4: Performance and Moral Pedagogy 

Geoffrey Claussen (Elon University): Teaching Modern Jewish Ethics Through Role Play
This paper considers the use of role-playing pedagogy in a Jewish Ethics course, focusing on a course activity in which students represent diverse modern Jewish thinkers and debate how Jews should understand particular moral virtues. As an example, I describe a class in which students represented eight modern Jews with diverse perspectives on love, kindness, and compassion and engaged in character with questions regarding gender, violence, selfhood, and Jewish identity, among other issues. I explore how such activities helped students to recognize the diversity of modern Jewish ethical traditions and to reflect on their own approaches to ethical reasoning.

Convener: Sandra Lawson (Elon University)
Respondent: Benjamin Ricciardi (Independent Scholar)

Havdalah: SATURDAY, 6:27 PM

Working and Interest Groups III: SATURDAY, 8-9:30 PM

SJE General Business Meeting: SUNDAY, 7:00-8:45 AM

Concurrent Session V: SUNDAY, 9:00-10:30 AM

Punishment, Shame, and Control
Aryeh Cohen (American Jewish University): Thinking Against Mass Incarceration 

In this essay, I read the inability to grapple with the carceral system and the refusal to condemn incarceration per se in the halakhic tradition, as stemming from a narrow view of the debate. That is, the halakhists herein considered trade away their strongest card by giving in to the reality of the existence of jails and prisons. Therefore they attempt to the best of their abilities to ameliorate an awful and unjust institution. I will suggest that stepping out of the punitive and futile world of the carceral system, to a place of real responsibility and the restoration of agency, using, of all things, the Talmudic discussion of the talion as read with William Ian Miller and Danielle Sered, allows the halakhic tradition to think and speak against (mass) incarceration. 

Sarah Wolf (Jewish Theological Seminary): Considering Shame in Rabbinic Law

This paper examines the role of emotion in rabbinic law by analyzing the development of the concept of boshet. Tannaitic boshet, which deals with the social perception of someone’s diminution of honor, shows Roman influence on rabbinic attention to subjectivity in a legal context. The Bavli then asks whether boshet is about a private feeling of shame or external humiliation, implicitly raising the question of whether the two can be disentangled. Boshet thus provides a fertile locus for considerations of the social dimensions of emotion in rabbinic literature and the complexities of the relationship between emotion and the law.

Convener: Rebecca Epstein-Levi (Vanderbilt University)
Respondent:  Buffie Longmire-Avital (Elon University)

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